As editors, the best part of our job is discovery. There’s nothing we love more than unearthing new artists with distinctive points of view. Shining a light on their work in our favorite privilege. Chief on our list of top L.A.-based home décor talents is furniture and home accessories designer Stephen Kenn. Kenn’s bold sense of raw, architectural cool and streamlined, military-influenced designs seamlessly blend masculine details with elegant precision. He also hosts one of the best coffee joints (@backdoorcoffeeclub) in L.A. out of his modern downtown loft.
Kenn and his wife, artist Beks Opperman, reside in a 1929 brick warehouse building that was formerly a furniture factory that made Murphy beds. The pair remodeled the space into an inviting and wildly original home that is every inch as mercurial and imaginative as their own aesthetic. Did we mention their favorite date-night activity is taking their vintage motorcycles for a ride? We tapped the ineffably cool couple for a candid conversation on expert tips for decorating an open space (no small feat), book collecting, and just what’s so awesome about L.A.’s burgeoning downtown art scene. Read on.
MYDOMAINE: You got your start in the denim business and eventually found your way from fashion to furniture. How did the transition come about?
STEPHEN KENN: As with most new directions in my life, it came because of curiosity. I just got interested in how furniture was made, so I tried to understand it. After I had taken apart a sofa and rebuilt it, I got an idea for our Inheritance Sofa.
MD: Each time we’ve been to the loft, there’s something new and amazing—namely your designs. Are you constantly redecorating?
SK: We like to live with our designs for a while before releasing them, whenever possible. Most of the pieces in our home are first samples of our own designs, some that have been released and others that are still in prototyping phase. It’s an evolving space. We paint walls different colors and switch out the sofa or chairs from pieces at our studio all the time. We love that the space allows us to redirect the look a bit when we feel like it. We treat it like an inspiration board for our brand’s visual direction.
MD: Is it true you added pretty slowly to the space, taking your time to add just the right pieces?
SK: We wanted the space to grow and change with us. When we moved in, it was very open—no interior walls at all—and it was much more space than we had furniture for. Rather than just start buying things to fill it up, we decided to live with it for a while. For about six months, it almost felt like camping in a garage. After some time here, we got a good feel for it and slowly started adding furniture as it felt right.
MD: How would you describe your style?
SK: This is the hardest question! We get attracted to really rustic, simple styles, but we also love clean and modern. Even as I say that, it seems as if those words have already lost some meaning in their broadness. Put simply, we like natural materials, clean lines, and comfortable spaces that invite us to sit and rest for a while.
MD: How did your signature leather-strap detail come about?
SK: I found an old military-issue belt at a vintage military-supply warehouse. I investigated and discovered it was Swiss army, a belt used to strap supplies to pack miles. I loved the look of it, so I made my own version for the support of the back and side cushions on the seating collection. I had known I wanted an exposed frame, and knew I needed something to support the cushions. The belt brought it all together.
MD: We love the mix of soft color and industrial neutrals. How would you decide the color scheme?
SK: Our love of natural materials means we will always have a lot of wood and steel and leather in our home, so that was where we started. White and gray walls look great with those materials, so we used that as a base. From there, it was just about adding some greenery to liven it up and accenting with color when it felt right. It’s really an organic thing, choosing colors for the home. Sometimes we bring something home to put on the wall or on the table and immediately there’s a wrongness to it, so away it goes.
MD: What is the biggest challenge of decorating an expansive, open space?
SK: Restraint! The huge openness of the space (before we built the three interior walls) was disconcerting. It didn’t feel warm and homey, and we wanted to rush to “fix” it. But I am so glad we took our time and adjusted to the openness before making changes. Without a lot of walls, it’s hard to create a space that feels like a room. A rug goes a long way.
MD: Your library is serious goals. Any tips for aspiring collectors? Where do you score all your amazing vintage books?
BEKS OPPERMAN: Oh, thank you! High compliments indeed. I think book collecting is a very personal thing; it should come from what you love or what intrigues you. I started collecting vintage books from the Modern Library collection about 15 years ago. I find them one or two at a time, here and there. I love to read literary fiction, history, poetry, sci-fi, fantasy, modern fiction, and philosophy and theology. I wander around used book stores. Having something specific to look for is a great way to focus my wandering. I remember where I got almost every one, and the memories are part of the reason I love the books. I shop used book stores: AbeBooks.com for used books and BookDepository.com or Amazon for new ones.
MD: What is your favorite feature of the loft?
SK: The roll-up garage door to the street. It’s convenient in practical ways (unloading groceries or moving big items in and out), but it’s also really fun to open the door in the evenings and sip a drink while the light fades. Getting to park our motorcycles inside is pretty awesome too.
MD: How do you and Beks combine your style as a couple? Do you have distinctive tastes, or do you agree on most décor?
SK: We have the same overall vision. On a smaller scale, she would have a place for everything, and everything in its place. I get nostalgic about items and never want to let them go. I like having little interesting things on the shelves or table surfaces. Things that have a nice texture or are unique enough to start a conversation.
MD: Tell us about your collaborations with Victorinox and Long Journey.
SK: I love to work collaboratively. By nature, I am an extrovert, and I love being around other creative people. They can bring something to a design conversation that is a completely different perspective from my own, and I love how that stretches me.
The connection with Long Journey was immediate. The company uses recycled materials in an interesting and modern way, creating something really fresh and modern. Our collaboration was a way to use Long Journey’s unique process of patch-working recycled and new materials in a new form.
With Victorinox, it was more about honoring the traditions of a company that had existed for more than 130 years. It has this unbelievably rich history of innovation and of responsible manufacturing. I was given a really free rein, as far as the designs went. That freedom was really wonderful. I am proud of what I made for the project and would love to work with the company again.
MD: The downtown L.A. art scene has changed a lot in the past 10 years. How would you compare the L.A. art scene to, say, NYC’s?
SK: There aren’t decades of tradition here. Free spirits are celebrated instead of told, “This is how we do things.” It feels a bit like the Wild West. Anything and everything is okay, so just try something. New York is amazing, but there is always a feeling that the walls for entry to the scene are too high. It discourages participation in the scene.
MD: There’s something of a renaissance happening in DTLA. What’s the most exciting thing about living here in this moment?
SK: There’s an amazing sense of possibility here. There’s always been warehouse or studio space, of course. Now there are great restaurants and amenities available. There are eyes on this part of the city that weren’t here before. It feels like a city poised for an art explosion.
MD: Keep us apprised of the explosion, please. We’ll be stopping by for coffee often.
Created in 2011, this is the original version of the Inheritance Collection sofa is made with military canvas and marbled rust.